- 1 Home automation
- 1.1 Voice-controlled assistants
- 1.2 Smart home hubs
- 1.3 Lights
- 1.4 Plugs
- 1.5 Thermostats
- 2 Security
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One of the biggest trends in consumer technology over the last few years has been the rise of the smart home. The number of different device categories that now make up the 'Internet of Things' (IoT) has grown immensely, with connected appliances now found in many households across the US and beyond.
The smart home was once an expensive hobby for tech-fiends only but has now become an affordable aspiration for normal people. You can get started for less than $30 these days, with some lights or a smart switch that can connect to your Wi-Fi network and be controlled with your phone. If you want to go all in, you could end up spending thousands on the connected home of the future.
With so many different products available, the smart home sector can be a little daunting. So let's break down the key categories and take a look at some of the best options in each one.
It's now possible to automate a bunch of actions in your home with relative ease. You can have your lights turn on for when you get home or regulate the temperature in your house from afar. With smart plugs you can turn pretty much any appliance on or off whenever you like. First of all, you'll need a controller that can speak to other smart devices around the home...
The Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa are the most accessible gateway to the smart home for most people. Both companies offer voice-controlled speakers that can interact with a plethora of Wi-Fi-equipped smart devices around the home. Which option is best will largely depend on how much you wish to spend and which ecosystem you’re more closely tied to.
Best - Google Home or Amazon Echo
Amazon got a headstart on Google with its Alexa-powered Echo speaker, which is now on its second generation. Like newer Google products, a fabric covering helps it blend in with the background in your house a little better. There’s even a wood-finished model.
The standard Echo usually retails for $30 cheaper, but Google Home is down $79 right now, and it looks like the price won’t go back up before the New Year. That makes it hard not to recommend the Google speaker, as they are practically identical in terms of functionality and sound quality. In response, Amazon has also dropped the price of the fabric and metal Echos to $79 for the holidays.
Both devices are compatible with tons of other smart home products. Take a look at what works with Google Home and Amazon Echo. Let’s not forget that Amazon also launched the Echo Plus and Echo Show this year. The $149 Plus has a slightly better speaker and a ZigBee hub on board, which perhaps isn’t enough to justify the extra cash. The Show adds video calling and some visual extras such as song lyrics. While it could be pretty useful for following recipes in the kitchen, at at $229 it is also a questionable purchase unless you have money to burn. Especially when you could just get a cheap Fire tablet to serve the same purpose.
Budget - Google Home Mini or Amazon Echo Dot
At Google’s October hardware event the company finally caught up with Amazon and released a smaller, cheaper smart speaker. It's mainly intended for getting information and controlling smart gadgets, and the smaller form factor could be perfect for you. If sound quality is more important to you (and you can afford the higher cost), you’re better off going for the products’ elder siblings. That said, the speaker on the Google Home Mini is considered superior to the Echo Dot.
Both offerings have seen heavy discounts recently, and both remain at $29 for the holiday period. That’s $20 less than their MSRP, and neither is a hard sell at the new price. I’ve just bought a Home Mini as an occasional bedroom speaker, and I couldn’t be happier with it so far.
While these devices also double as passable speakers, if sound quality is your primary concern you’re going to be better off with something else, and that doesn’t necessarily mean forking out 400 bucks for the Google Home Max. There are now a number of third-party speaker options with the Google Assistant or Alexa built in, such as the portable TicHome Mini which I reviewed last month.
For more audiophile options, check out Rita's top picks for earbuds, headphones, and speakers.
Smart home hubs
If you want to take things to the next level, you’ll need to invest in a smart home hub. As well as Wi-Fi they are able to connect to devices using other protocols, which gives you tons more options. You can also create different scenarios involving multiple devices more easily. So if you really want to go down the automation route, these are some of the best home hub options.
Best - Samsung SmartThings
There are plenty of options out there, but perhaps the most robust for its price is Samsung’s SmartThings hub. It’s compatible with Z-Wave and ZigBee, as well as Wi-Fi, which means there are hundreds of products that work with it out of the box. It's also possible for devs and users to create 'device handlers' that connect previously unsupported equipment and 'SmartApps' to add more actions and automations. The open nature of this system means that if you want to do something new, chances are somebody you can make it happen
SmartThings also has its own ecosystem of add-ons and sensors. It's also worth noting that Google Home and Amazon Echo can both talk to Samsung's hub, so far from being a competitor or replacement, SmartThings is a great addition if you already have either of those voice assistants in the house.
Budget - SmartThings Link
If you already have an Nvidia Shield TV box, there’s an even cheaper way of getting started with SmartThings. The SmartThings Link is a USB dongle that plugs into the back of the Shield to give you the full smart home hub experience at a fraction of the price. It does everything Samsung’s more expensive hub does and could be a good way to get started if the price puts you off.
There are plenty of other home hubs out there worthy of your attention, including Wink's excellent Hub 2 (check out Rita's review). It's compatible with a wide range of protocols, including Bluetooth LE, ZigBee, Z-Wave, Kidde, and Lutron Clear Connect. If you'd prefer to have everything in one place and control it by hand, take a look at Logitech's Harmony series, which combine a hub with a separate remote control.
Smart lighting is one of the first ports of call for those wanting a smarter home, and it’s both affordable and impressive at the same time. Just think of the wow-factor at your next dinner party when you tell Google to make the lighting more romantic in the dining room. This is one of the busiest categories in smart home products, but these are some of the best options depending on what kind of hub you have.
Hue – Wi-Fi, ZigBee
Philips is quite experienced in the space now, and its range of Hue lights are easy to recommend. A single white bulb starts at $15, which is a good place to start if you want to try smart lighting out. There are plenty of more colorful options if you want to get creative, and they are all compatible with both Wi-Fi and ZigBee devices, including Google Home, Amazon Echo, SmartThings, and more.
LiFX – Wi-Fi only
A slightly more expensive option comes from LiFX, with its purely Wi-Fi-enabled smart lights. They also work with Google Assistant and Alexa, and there are some interesting options past simple bulbs, including tiles and edge lighting strips that can be combined with other objects in your home for stunning results.
Extravagant pick - Nanoleaf Aurora
The award for full-on extravagance in smart lighting goes to Nanoleaf, whose modular triangles can be joined artistically like no other product in the category. They aren’t a cheap option, by any means, but if you have the cash to spend, you’ll not be disappointed by the aurora. Check out Rita’s review to learn more.
Honorable mentions go to Z-wave options such as GoControl (cheapest) and GE (which also has Wink options). IKEA has also joined the party and released its own range of ZigBee smart lighting, called TRÅDFRI (pictured above). Single bulbs start from as little as $6.99, and you can get a dimmer for just $10. To use them directly with Alexa you’ll also need the $30 Gateway, though, and there’s no Google Assistant support just yet. If you’re willing to do a bit of work, it is also possible to pair them with a SmartThings hub.
While you can connect smart lights directly to smart home systems, there's also a way to control dumb lights and other less than smart home appliances. Smart power outlets from the likes of TP-Link and Wemo simply plug into your existing outlets and can be turned on and off remotely. Best of all, they're Wi-Fi-enabled, so you can easily control them without the need for a specific hub or protocol. If you want your coffee to be ready for when you get out of bed, a smart plug can be scheduled to make that happen for you.
And what's the best smart plug use-case for this time of year? That's right, turning on your Christmas tree.
They may seem like an unnecessary luxury, but smart thermostats could end up saving you money on your energy bill in the long run. Advanced scheduling, precise temperature settings, and remote control are some solid reasons to part with the cash. Let’s look at a couple of the best options.
Best - Ecobee4
The latest release from Ecobee is much more than just a thermostat. It doubles as a fully-fledged Alexa unit with a built-in speaker (albeit small), so as well as controlling the heating it can also do anything an Amazon Echo can. It also comes with a single sensor, although you can buy more separately, as required. The sensors can detect occupancy as well as temperature, so the system can concentrate its efforts on rooms with people in. If you already have an Alexa-powered speaker elsewhere, the Ecobee4 can join up to expand the smart network in your home. Google fans will be pleased to learn that the Ecobee4 also gained Assistant integration recently.
Budget - Nest Thermostat E
Google-owned Nest is probably the most well-known maker of smart thermostats, and while its third-generation Learning Thermostat is one of the best options in the category, the recently released Thermostat E offers a cheaper option ($80 less). It’s a more simplistic approach which is less informative than its older sibling, but it will be plenty advanced enough for most people. We think it’s the budget pick to go for and Ryan was certainly very happy with it when he reviewed it.
Irrespective of the above home automation categories, smart security is also becoming increasingly popular. It’s more affordable than ever to add a connected security device to your property, and to many people the peace of mind makes them worth the outlay anyway. Here are some key options for those wanting to feel a little safer at home.
Best (with plan) - Nest Cam IQ
Nest already had very capable indoor and outdoor cameras, and then it went and updated them with even better specs. The Nest Cam IQ Indoor now has a 4K 12MP sensor with HDR, and the outdoor model can capture 1080p HD video with HDR and night vision both on board. To get the most out of Nest's cams you're going to need to pay the $10 monthly subscription to Nest Aware, which gets you a ten-day video history and intelligent alerts, among other features. Overall, it's going to be expensive, but it's the best option if you want all the top features. Find out what Ryan thought about the Nest Cam IQ in his review.
It's worth noting that Nest plans to improve the Cam IQ through software updates. It recently got image rotation and better person alerts as part of a big update, but more interestingly, it will soon gain full Google Assistant functionality, so you'll be able to talk to it just like a Google Home. Even so, t's probably worth checking whether you need the spec bump or if you can save $100-150 and settle for the older Nest Cam Indoor or Nest Cam Outdoor.
Best (without plan) - Arlo Pro
Another leader in this field is the Arlo Pro, which can be used inside or out and can operate completely wire-free. Where the Arlo Pro might win out of Nest's options is that you don't have to pay for a monthly subscription to get useful features. The basic plan gives you seven days of cloud recordings at no extra cost, and the $9.99 plan bumps that up to 30 days with unlimited support for up to 10 cameras. Right now, the system is cheaper than Nest's best, too, so Arlo might be the better option if you don't want to break the bank. Ryan reviewed the Arlo Pro, too, if you want to see what he made of it.
Even though the Arlo Pro 2 is out, we would still recommend the first generation model as the newer version has had some issues with battery life, connectivity, and picture quality.
Budget - Amcrest and tinyCam
As with just about everything in this list, there's usually a cheaper way. If you can't afford the expensive options above, a good alternative is to get a reasonably priced IP camera from Amcrest and hook it up to the tinyCam app, which even has a free version. This method won't be as fully-featured as one of the plans above, and it might take a bit of work to set up, but you'll be able to get most of the functionality at a fraction of the cost.
Amcrest ProHD 1080p Wi-Fi camera - $74.99
Best - SmartThings ADT or Nest Secure
Top of the range smart alarm systems do not come cheap, as you're looking at $400 for a Samsung SmartThings system or $500 the Nest equivalent (pictured). These are just starter packs, too, so you might have to fork out even more to get the right number of sensors for your home. The SmartThings offering has a home security hub with a 7-inch screen and comes with two door/window detectors, and one motion sensor. Nest Secure has a more simplistic approach with no screen and includes two multi-function detectors (door/window or motion) plus two disarm tags.
It probably goes without saying, but both have apps that can be used to control each system and get notifications. Both also offer optional professional monitoring services or a monthly fee.
Budget - Wink Lookout
For home security on a budget, look no further than Wink Lookout. You get similar features as the more expensive Samsung and Nest systems for half the price. In the box, you'll get a Wink Hub and separate siren, two door/window sensors and one motion detector. There's no professional monitoring service, but that's probably okay given you'd pick this option to save money.
If you want to add an extra layer of security that gives you even more control over your front door, a smart lock could be a great addition. They come with features such as remote locking and unlocking, plus mobile phone entry that lets you see which family members have entered and when. The best options come from companies like Schlage, Yale, and August. If you live in Europe where locks are a bit different, you'll want to try Nuki (which Rita has just thoroughly reviewed).
Mostly, a lock by itself will only be Bluetooth-compatible, and a Wi-Fi bridge will be required for full functionality. That said, some locks will work directly with a hub without the need for a separate bridge, depending on the protocol.
Schlage Sense Locks
Yale Smart Locks
- Bluetooth and Z-Wave
August Smart Lock Pro (3rd gen)
Nuki (for Europe)
Another potential line of defense in protecting your home is a smart doorbell. You can be notified on your phone while away from home if someone rings the bell. The onboard camera, microphone, and speaker allow you to see who's there and have a chat with them as though you're on the other side of the door. Here are some of the popular options.
Of course, these products are just the tip of the smart home iceberg, with many more categories and brands available for those who want to turn their place into the dwelling of the future. This should make for a good starting point, at the very least. Enjoy!